Monday, 21 June 1999
Its a strange feeling to be travelling again but I think its like riding a bicycle, you never loose the instinct...
Without going into too much detail on leaving Peru we returned to the UK where Anna had to find a job for the next academic year. Fortunately she managed to find one quickly and within a month we were making plans for a long summer holiday and a month after this we were on the plane again. We flew to Athens first and spent a quiet week with Anna's parents and then boarded another plane for Amman.
Amman was by no means our first choice but a lack of seats on flights to Damascus and, as usual, not having enough time to follow the overland route through Turkey, meant that we had to take what we could get.
The Olympic Airlines flight was pretty unremarkable. One amusing incident was that the main course of the meal was pork. The stewardess placed it in front of a group of Jordanians sitting across the aisle from us. Once they got over the initial shock they told her that they could not eat it. "I am sorry but if you have any special dietary requirements you should have stated this when you checked in" was her response. Fortunately they took it in good humour but we were amazed. After all on a flight was bound for a country where over 90% of the population are Muslim perhaps pork is not the best choice of meal to serve.
We finally landed at about 0200. We had taken the precaution of booking a room at the Cliff Hotel so we knew we would have somewhere to sleep. However by mistake we had also asked the hotel to send a taxi to meet us. Predictably we failed to find the driver and were forced to take another taxi. After the long drive from Queen Alia airport we found the hotel, which took a bit of a leap of faith because it was up an unmarked staircase up a dark alleyway, and woke up the night porter. He had been expecting us but was a bit puzzled about us not finding the sent taxi. He kept on repeating that we should have found it and that the driver was still waiting for us. In the"/> I was forced to tell him that we would sort it out in the morning.
Tuesday, 22 June 1999
We left early partly to avoid the heat but also so that we would get some time to look around Damascus. We decided in the"/> to give the hotel the benefit of the doubt on the taxi front and pay some money for it. Three months ago we would have been arguing about it and walking out of the door but we knew we would have all this fun to come so put it off for a day.
On the floor down from the hotel lobby we found a pretty spartan cafe where a few locals sat around taking puffs on huge hubbly-bubblies (also known as hookahs or nargilehs) and taking morning coffee. Of course we had seen nargilehs before but I don't think anything could ever prepare you for the sheer numbers that surround you as soon as you enter the Arab world. I guess I have always thought of them as a bit seedy and purely the domain of fat men with shifty eyes no doubt as a result of watching Casablanca one too many times. However it becomes clear pretty quickly that their use is much more widespread. In the kitchen of the cafe they had a shelf containing a row of about a dozen highly polished specimens. Standing there they looked like some sort of macabre organ, only Captain Nemo would have been required to complete the picture.
Adabli station was a bit of a mess. Buses and taxis were everywhere. We asked someone where we would find a share taxi to Damascus. He seemed a little confused but behind him a guy using a public phone understood exactly what we wanted and barked some orders to him. Within seconds he was leading us along the pavement to a small office and once there he disappeared. I was more than a bit amazed, clearly neither of the two guys had anything to do with the private taxi firm but they had been only too happy to sort us out. And not just to the extent of giving us vague and conflicting directions, they actually took us to the spot. Anyway once there we were sat down on a couch and after a while enough punters were gathered to fill a taxi and we were taken to our vehicle.
The taxi was huge, an old and battered Chevy or something similar, you could really feel it purr into action when the ignition key was turned. Pretty soon we were out of the outskirts of Amman, past the turning to Baghdad, and hurtling through the desert. Having been party to smuggling a couple of times already we deduced that our brief stop to load up the boot of the car with some black plastic bags was in the same vein. However it was handled so casually that I had my doubts that we were going to have any trouble. I was right, at the border everything went like clockwork, our driver taking us from one window to another and even saving us some money since we did not know that our stay in Jordan being limited to one day meant that we did not have to pay exit tax. The boot was inspected briefly but dismissed - I guess either we were within legal limits or the police were only out to catch the big fish.
The first thing you see when you get into Syria is Assad. It is true that Syria was once aligned to the Soviet Bloc, and I even read that Assad got a lot of his ideas from a state visit to North Korea, but nevertheless the posters on every other lamp post for the first couple of kilometres of Syrian highway were quite an eye opener. Anyway at least they provided a note of interest, after they ran out there was nothing but"/>less flat nothingness to stare at. I probably went on about it months back but the desert, contrary to popular romantic opinion, is a pretty dull place. There are a few parts where sand gathers and creates immense dunes, or mountains poke out break up the horizon but, as far as our experience goes, it is mostly flat and boring. That is it is relentlessly boring from the window of a car, close-up it is a different matter. Again the misrepresentation is the fault of films, I do not think Star Wars, The English Patient, Lawrence of Arabia etc. would have had quite the same cinematic impact if they had been filmed in the flat empty bits in between.
Damascus is a pretty lively town. We went directly to a cheap hotel in the midst of cheap hotel land next to Martyr's Square. We dumped our bags and then headed straight for the old town. Instantly we were plunged into a world of frantic buying and selling (the selling more frantic than the buying) and tiny alleyways that you could well believe has not changed much since Jesus' day. We dived into a restaurant close to the Umayyad Mosque and ordered our first kebab. It was superb and although the best kebabs I ever tasted were from a Lebanese restaurant on Shaftsbury Avenue the Syrian kebab runs a close second.
The Umayyad Mosque itself was constructed in the eighth century over the site of the Roman Temple of Jupiter, a few fragments of which remain. It must have been an amazing place in its heyday. Sadly fire has robbed us of a lot of the amazing mosaics surrounding the huge courtyard which depict the Muslim Paradise. The prayer hall itself was very badly damaged so what you see today in terms of carvings and decoration is quite recent. It is huge but has a very odd atmosphere, people seem to use its vast floor space as a meeting place. They sit around in clusters chatting away. The odd person was engaged in prayer but otherwise you would have been hard pressed to guess the hall's function - all the trappings you would normally associate with religion were just not there. From what Anna told me of Al-Faisal mosque in Islamabad this lack of decoration is not unique. From what I have read representations of people and animals are prohibited by Islam and it is these icons and statues of saints that regularly clutter up older Christian churches.
Out in the alleyways once again we headed for Straight St. a road ancient enough to make it into the bible. If from this you get the impression that it is a huge highway bustling with markets and people, think again. The activity pretty much centres on the covered markets or souks which are confined to one"/> of the street. The vast majority of the street is rather narrow and although lined with shops was not in the least busy. It was into one of these shops that we were summoned by a one Monsieur Antoine Beheit. He turned out to be a barber, which was unfortunate because despite needing a haircut I just did not feel like I could deal with a collar full of itchy hair clippings in that heat. Nevertheless his barber shop was amazing, the chairs were a hundred an fifty years old with the wall of wood fittings and mirrors that faced them running a close second. He proceeded to guide us, in French, through his entire photo collection and half a very enjoyable hour later we swapped addresses, took photos and escaped. I resolved that if I did not find the complete Turkish hairdressing experience in Aleppo then my haircut could wait for our return to Damascus.
After Monsieur Beheit we had a lot of difficulty getting anywhere. We were constantly being asked into shops and chatting to merchants and generally trying to find ways to avoid their polite sales pitches. Finally we made it to the Chapel of St Ananias. It is quite an insignificant looking chapel hidden in a not so busy quarter of town. However it was supposedly here that St Paul of Tarsus was hidden after his conversion. As the street level has risen through the millennia it has sunk further and further underground but there are no doubts that this tiny vaulted chamber existed back in New Testament days It was very atmospheric if you ignored the other tourists present who were videoing the walls for posterity.
Leaving the chapel we decided to stick to the back roads to get back to Martyrs' Square. This turned out to be the best way to experience the maze of streets that is Damascus. You pick a direction and vaguely head in it and discover all sorts of amazing mosques and alleys and quiet corners that would never make it to any guide book. I remember we used this method to explore the old Muslim quarter of Kashgar when we were in China. That time it we"/>ed up loosing the thread a bit and fell out into the twentieth century on totally the wrong side of the old town. This time we did everything right and soon found ourselves exiting through the iron-roofed souk that connects the Umayyad mosque to the side of the citadel.
After picking up tickets for the first bus to Palmyra the next day we jumped into a taxi and negotiated the price to take us to the top of Mount Qasioun . This was tricky since he wanted to take us up then wait for an hour and then take us down all for S£500. We said, no just up, he told us S£100 but we would never find a taxi down and we said that for S£400 we would take the chance. After all Abraham, Jesus, Mary and Mohammed all managed to get up and down the thing and I doubt they found a taxi straight away either. As we zigzagged our way up the view got progressively more stunning until finally we found ourselves on the road where the cafes used to be. I use the past tense here because where once there had been a whole string of cafes sporting "sun setting over Damascus view" terraces there was now a string of foundations. No doubt it has improved the look of the mountain which according to Arab folklore will be exempt from the Apocalypse, but it does now mean that anyone going there on the big day will have to take a packed lunch. So instead of relaxing in a cafe watching the setting sun, we instead fell into the waiting arms of the hawkers whose cola prices ranged from three times to seven times over what we had paid at lunch.
The view however more than made up for the lack of a nice cup of tea. As the sunset behind us it started to dawn on us that we were going to have a tricky time getting back down. We asked a couple of waiting taxis but of course they were already taken. The road down was far too long and winding to contemplate so in the"/> we decided to try and get down the steep slopes to the start of the houses roughly 200m below. This turned out to be quite a challenge, as the only tracks were very steep and covered in grit. Worse still they were also very dusty and pretty soon our sandaled feet became caked in the stuff.
We must have looked a pitiful sight for, just as we reached the road and were wondering how we were ever going to get all the way back to Martyrs' Square , we were ushered into someone's house. We were instantly instructed to wash our feet, which we did, and were prevented from cleaning the floor of the bathroom after ourselves, someone else would take care of it. The house was owned by a guy called Adnan and with him lived his son and a couple of tenants one of who was Turkish and could speak a little English. We were sat down and offered cups of tea which we drank admiring their view over Damascus by night. We talked with them a little but with zero Arabic (it was our first day after all) it was tough going. The Turkish guy had moved here with his parents ten years ago because of lack of jobs in their native Ismir and now worked in a candle factory. After two cups of tea we had to get going and fortunately, for our aching feet, we were conducted to a bus stop some way down the road. Back at the square we had a quick dinner and went to bed exhausted.
Wednesday, 23 June 1999
The bus to Palmyra was quite luxurious in comparison to the majority of the vehicles we had experienced in previous months. The flat desert scenery did not provide much of a distraction which was a worry since we had not packed enough reading material for the trip and had early exhausted it all during our brief stay in Greece.
Just as we drew into Tadmor (the town by Palmyra) I managed a quick glance out of the window. This was fortunate as the road somewhat alarmingly cuts right through the middle of the site and you get a pretty comprehensive preview of coming attractions. We were hassled a little as we got off the bus but ignored all advice ad went to a hotel in our guide book. It turned out to be very nice and we got a great room overlooking the main street. We then had a couple of Falafel sandwiches and headed out into the ruins.
The guidebooks tend to steer you away from investigating the ruins of Palmyra at midday. We however thought it was a great idea - just put a hat on and take slightly more water with you than we did and off you go. All the drink sellers are asleep, all the tour groups are afraid to venture out of their rooms, we got the place pretty much to ourselves. The ruins are to say the least extensive. The colonnaded Cardo Maximus runs for over a kilometre and most of its pillars are still standing. For a remote outpost stuck in the middle of nowhere the greatest enemy is the local populace recycling stones for their own dwellings. I guess that is why most of the pillars made it through the centuries, they do not balance so well on top of each other.
The first building we got to was the temple of Baal Shamin which apparently had made it through in one piece by being refitted as a Byzantine church. It was stripped back to its original state by archeologists and now, sporting a tree growing inside it, makes for a very homely sort of a place. We then walked through the jumble of foundations and rubble that covers the majority of the site and made for the Cardo Maximus. Here we turned right and made for Diocletian's camp investigating the various foundations along what must have once been Palmyra's bustling high street. The pillars along the street all had small brackets mounted on them high up. These brackets once held statues of the various movers and shakers in Palmyrian society of which there were quite a few. The city grew rich from the taxes on passing caravans. Holed up in the desert, days away from anywhere, there would have been very little to do but build bigger and bigger houses and temples and throw wild parties. I even read that they got so distressed that no-one ever came to see the glory of the city they had created they even paid for the emperor to make a state visit. Sadly although the outlines remain a lot of the glorious details have been lost. Most of the statues that graced the columns were appropriated for collections following the town's rediscovery in the eighteenth century.
At a bend in the Cardo Maximus we encountered a very badly restored funerary temple. I took advantage of the shade of its concrete patchwork walls to change films but was interrupted by a totally mad chap who seemed to be asking for a pen. Maybe there was some truth to Noel Coward's "Mad dogs and Englishmen" after all. Fortunately just a little bit down the street was the temple of the standards of which quite a bit remained. One giant pillar lay where it had fallen onto the eroded stairs leading up to the temple. In the corner enough of a tower remained to climb up to the top and get a view over the entire site and the palm covered oasis beyond.
However the thing that conjured up visions of Palmyra former glory the most were the chunks of masonry. Like some sort of immense jigsaw they lay around, turned over so that you could see the ornate carvings on them. We found all sorts of symmetrical designs and on one a frieze of grape vines with huge bunches of grapes ready to be picked. You also sort of felt a bit sorry that these designs had been exposed because within time they would be worn away like everything else. However seeing these carvings in situ, rather than in some museum, did help you to understand just how beautiful the town once was.
Behind the Temple of the Standards lay the valley of the tombs. To bury their dead the Palmyrians built a string of burial towers stretching for a kilometre from the city wall. We investigated the first big one we reached. It was divided into floors and on each floor there were a number of alcoves, each alcove divided by shelves. Walking amongst the towers with only the lizards for company was a bit on the eerie side. Graveyards are normally pretty atmospheric but this one, with its tall black towers sticking out of the desert for as far as the eye could see certainly took the biscuit.
We made our way back through the rubble and entered the Agora, the old market place. We then managed to sneak into the partly reconstructed theatre climbing up to the top row to avoid the hawkers sheltering from the sun in one of the entrance archways. Finally we exited via the huge monumental archway that seems to feature in every postcard of the area and took the road back to town.
We went for another quick whirl around the ruins at sunset. The sun had very atmospherically decided to set behind the old Arab fort perched on an extinct volcano cone overlooking the town. The whole of the rather box like fort was turned into a glowing silhouette and I literally had to run around the site trying to find an angle where I could get it and some ruins in the same photo without including a total eyesore of a radio mast on a neighbouring hill. When we had finally run out of light we went back to the town for dinner. One final thing that is worth mentioning is that as the day came to an"/> the light breeze during the day slowly transformed into a roaring gale. At dinner serviettes, rubbish bins etc. were blown around the restaurant to much amusement.
Thursday, 24 June 1999
Anybody who thinks getting up at five in the morning to take photographs is crazy only needs to see photographs taken at this time to understand. This morning however it was crazy, the wind had not died down and so there was no hope for my lightweight tripod. I woke up, looked out of the window, then went back to sleep. We finally saw the light of day at a pretty respectable eight. This is when the Temple of Bel opens and it is an hour before the tour groups get bussed in from Damascus. It was hoping too much to been on our own as we had been yesterday but in the"/> it turned out that there were only a couple of others there.
When you enter the courtyard of the Temple of Bel you begin to understand what big business religion was in the roman world. It is huge, almost 250m square on each side and quite unbelievably used to have a roof. Only a few patches have survived or have been reconstructed but the one the stands out the most is the Cella, sort of like an inner sanctum, which you enter via a huge square doorway which sports intricately carved lintels. Once inside the Cella you see a story that spans the ages. The carving from roman times sits side by side with traces of Byzantine paintings and Arabic graffiti. The southern shrine's Roman roof carvings are very reminiscent of Arabic symmetrical designs and are stained black from soot when the shrine served as a house and the whole temple housed a village. Apart from the Cella very little of the jigsaw puzzle had been put together. Again wonderful carvings lay scattered around along with weird donut shaped stones which looked like pieces of a massive Towers of Hanoi game.
At eleven we went to catch the bus to Deir-ez-Zur. We had a couple of reasons to go there the one being that I did not want to duplicate our route from Damascus to Aleppo the other that we wanted to stand on the banks of the Euphrates. I am not sure that either of us are so keen on rivers. You dream about the Himalayas or the Andes and when you get there you cannot fail to be impressed. However you dream about the mighty Yellow river or the Mekong and when you get there you generally find it is a bit smelly. Nevertheless they are always teeming with life and the Euphrates, the cradle of civilization, we hoped would be more teeming than most.
We were dumped in a dusty bus station, way out in the suburbs of a dusty town in the midst of a cloud of dust. I panicked a bit, I had seen enough dusty towns in China to last me a life time and with only two months of trip this time round I was not keen on seeing anymore. We decided however to give it a whirl and found a fairly honest taxi driver to take us to the centre of town. The Damas hotel was a bit dubious and its owner strange to say the least, sitting in the lobby was a German guy with such a "what am I doing here look on his face" that we knew that Deir-Ez-Zur was not another Langmusi in disguise. However we procured a room with lumpy beds and a pleasant balcony went off to get lunch by the banks of the Euphrates.
The Euphrates is spanned by a pedestrian bridge at Deir-Ez-Zur and it was this we aimed for. It was a short walk and once there we found that the Euphrates was indeed huge but was not as smelly nor as brown as I had feared, in fact it was blue with a slight oil slick finish. In the middle of the bridge a group of what seemed to be drunks invited us to join them. We declined and headed back towards the hotel, the river side restaurant seemingly having shut for summer. We then found some falafel sandwiches over which we debated what to do. From Deir-Ez-Zur you are within striking distance of the ancient ruins of the cities of Dura Europus and Mari and the Roman forts of Halibye and Zalibye. It was impossible to get to any of these and back in what was left of an afternoon so if we were going to make the effort they would have to wait until the day after. Beyond ruins Deir-ez-Zur's attraction is its Museum so with nothing else to do we set off through the streets in an attempt to find it.
From a distance the museum looked very closed but the gates were open so we walked in. In the foyer the two museum attendants had laid out a huge rug on which they had placed a pot of tea, some water and a few other bit and pieces. They looked somewhat surprised to see us but snapped quickly into action. We were asked to sign the visitors' book and apart from a couple who had visited two days before the last visitors were sometime in may. They switched the lights on and we started to read the displays. About ten minutes an attendant bought us a cup of tea. He then stayed with us as we proceeded from room to room saying nothing but keeping an eye on us. The museum itself was excellent. Well laid out it traced the history of Syria through eight millennia. The commentaries were in English and Arabic and the English was perfect (the museum was put together with the assistance of the Germans). Anyway it took us a long time but we finally reached the"/>, tipped the strongly hinting attendant and then left.
Returning to the pedestrian bridge for sunset over the Euphrates we found that the whole thing had turned into something of a freak show. Bored teenagers hung around on the bridge being very moronic. On our previous visit someone had shouted "fuck" at us in an attempt to shock Anna but this time the swear words and the hisses came thick and fast. Every time we wanted to stop to look at the river a bunch of three or four people would gather around us. Some guy on a passing bike attempted to grab Anna's hair. A group of Japanese girls (who were studying Arabic in Damascus) sat virtually besieged on one section of the bridge, any view they had completely obscured by the crowd gathered around them. We concluded that the bridge was some sort of moron magnet which was a shame since the sunset was very nice.
Friday, 25 June 1999
That morning whilst she was having a shower someone knocked on the door and asked Anna if she wanted any soap.... we decided not to hang around.
On the bus to Aleppo we felt a bit guilty but there are so many sets of ruins in Syria and Jordan (not to mention Egypt) that we did not want to get "ruin"ed out. The road to Aleppo was a bit more interesting than usual, it skirted the thin strip of irrigated land beside the Euphrates. In fact it so exactly skirted it that many times one side of the road was completely green the other side dust. We saw little of the blue river and completely missed Lake Assad, the Syrian equivalent of Lake Nasser.
After four hours we came to the outskirts of Aleppo and a little while later were dumped at a bus station in what looked like the middle of nowhere. We had expected to get dropped in the heart of the town a bit and so, not having any idea where we were, decided to throw ourselves on the mercy of a metered taxi. This turned out to be a major mistake as the driver's meter looked incredibly dodgy. We thought it was sour grapes when a rival taxi driver had warned us that "him Ali Baba, meter spin round" but it was clear that the guy had tampered with it. To make matters worse the driver did not seem to care where we were going and after about five minutes Anna fortunately spotted the Baron hotel and we realised that he was driving around in a circle. The bus had in fact dropped us in the heart of the town and we could have easily walked to our hotel. We stopped the taxi and got out, the driver tried to claim that his meter said S£400 (about £6) but we gave him S£40 and that was too much. We just walked off and swore that it was the first and last time we would ask for the meter.
After installing ourselves in the ultra clean and quite cheap Venicia hotel (£7 a night) we set off to explore the city. The only problem was that it was Friday which is the Islamic equivalent of Sunday and everything was shut. We found somewhere and had an entirely new kind of kebab and then wondered what to do. We decided to make for the Jdeide quarter - the old Christian Quarter which housed nearly every denomination of church imaginable. After a bit of getting lost we finally spied the spires of the Maronite church, which was of course closed, so we headed down an alleyway to one side of it. It was like entering a completely different world. The Christian community it seemed had built itself a maze of narrow passageways and high stone walls. It was as if it had sealed itself off from the outside world and my first thought was that we were not going to find out much about it, I was soon proved wrong.
Hratch beckoned too us from a doorway on one of the narrow alleyways "Where do you come from England, Francais, Deutschland, Ruskie...". At first we thought that our answer would just get the usual "Welcome to Syria" response but it turned out that he could speak pretty much any language. What was more surprising was that as well as speaking Greek he had lived there for a couple of years and knew Athens very well. He was Armenian and his Grandparents had fled from the Armenian genocide in Turkey around the time of WWI. He talked to Anna for a while and then insisted on personally escorting us to the Greek Orthodox church. Again we dived into the rabbit's warren of passages although this time we had a guide and we popped out in an entirely enclosed square on which sat the Gregorian Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches. The Greek was closed but Hratch insisted on taking us into see the liturgy at the Armenian church. It was to say the least an amazing place. A small courtyard housed the bell tower, donated long ago by an Armenian who made his fortune in Brazil. Next to the bell tower was a monument to the Armenian genocide in which, Hratch told us, nearly one and a half million Armenians were killed. The chapel itself was crammed full of icons and the altar itself was fashioned a bit like a church in miniature. A priest and his assistant stood chanting the liturgy in Armenian. We sat and listened to the"/> and then Hratch showed us a bit more of the church.
Back in the small square again Hratch opened up his shop. He was a silversmith and he sat us at the back of his shop and showed us some of his work. Most interesting were small sheets of silver foil that had been cut into the shapes of parts of the body, the hand, the heart, the eyes. These were apparently used to restore health, you would drop them into the offerings box at church and then pray for your medical condition to improve. We spoke to Hratch for hours about himself, he had worked all over Europe as a jeweller, as well as writing the sports column for the Armenian newspaper in Athens, and our own travels. He did not say much about Syria itself, every since I had heard of them the position of these Christian communities in a Muslim country fascinated me, but then I knew we would visit him again.
We left Hratch around six and returned to the hotel. The guy at reception asked us if we wanted some tea and, since we were in no hurry, we accepted. He had said previously that he had a friend who spoke Greek so imagine our surprise when this friend turned up to have tea with us five minutes later. We chatted to this guy for a while, he was a young Kurd who had studied in Greece for eight years. If Hratch was slightly reticent about Syria this guy was positively embarrassed. We found out why at the"/> of tea, he was a registered tour guide, he'd love to show us around Aleppo. Money? He would not dream of asking for any, but of course if you wanted.....
After this we went for dinner in one of the posh bits of Aleppo. We were trying to take a break from kebabs and so went for pizza. Ironically it had kebab meat topping but was very nice. Anyway over dinner we talked about a curious aspect of both conversations we had engaged in that day. Both Hratch, with friendly motives, and the Kurdish guide, with monetary motives, had asked us what could they sort out for us, what was our programme. The sad thing was apart from hiring a car and driving through the countryside around Aleppo we had no real plans. In some ways this beyond the expected hospitality fitted quite neatly into something that I had read about Syria, that everything was done through connections. We are not used to this because connections count for nothing in the west anymore. I remember going to the bank with Anna when she first came to England to help her set up an account with the bank I had used all my life. I will act as her guarantor I told the branch manager. "If only I could. I'm afraid things haven't worked that way for a long time." was the reply. We therefore resolved to find out more about how things work...
Saturday, 26 June 1999
We slept in late, after all it was the first time we were not moving on the next day. About eleven we were ready to go out when there was a knock on the door. It was the Greek speaking Kurdish guy, did we need a guide for the day, were we going to St Simeon etc. We told him we did not know what we were doing and sent him away. It is all a bit sad because we hardly ever employ guides and he clearly wants the money. It makes me wonder why he was studying physical education in Greece for all those years.
We decided to go and sort out the hiring of the car. We knew of two hotels that hired cars and called the Pullman Shabba hotel first. This was a bit inconclusive so we decided to visit the next hotel, the Shabba Cham, on foot. This took us through a fairly well off area of flats, they all seemed to have been built at the same time so it had the look of a massive council estate but the facades of the low blocks were very ornate. We found the hotel after a while but they would not let us have a car for less than three days. So we decided to walk to the Pullman Hotel and talk to them again.
Just around the corner from the hotel a group of students asked us if we needed any help. We told them where we were heading for and they pointed us in the right way. After a while we realised that two of the students were following us. They called to us and asked if we could do them a favour. John and Fadi were students of food science and Fadi was looking into the possibility of studying for a masters in England. We told him as much as we could about it but standing there in the street it was difficult to talk. By a roundabout way we made an arrangement to meet them the next day at our hotel.
The Pullman Hotel turned out to be a bit of a dead"/>. We decided to double back on ourselves and go to a barber we had seen earlier in the day as I desperately needed a haircut and, as it happened a shave. I decided to go for the full monty and it is was an experience not to be missed. I was slightly anxious at first as you would be when faced with a sixteen year old wielding a cut throat razor but it appeared that this was the apprentice's job. He did an amazing job and although it stung a bit by the"/> I felt completely refreshed. The hair cut was excellent and when he finished cutting he spent hours sculpting my hair with a brush and a can of hair spray. In fact it looked a bit too plastic and I was glad to get out of the shop and ruffle it up. We then went back to the hotel.
After a quick rest we decided it was time to explore the old Arab Quarter of town. Fortunately, as it turned out with most things, it was just around the corner from our hotel. We took a back alley and within minutes popped out into what was an entirely different world again. The main souk is like something that it would not be possible to dream up even if you put every image of the Arabic world together. A vaulted ceiling enclosed most of the street, above this ceiling I assumed were houses or warehouses. The occasional gap between houses and the odd skylight were the only way you could get an idea of the time of day. The shops sold every kind of goods imaginable, everywhere they spilled out onto the street. The spice stalls and bakeries provided another dimension to the picture. We had just bought some hareeseh (baked semolina drenched in syrup) when suddenly a character straight out of Casablanca intercepted us. "These believe it or not are toothpicks, do you want to try one, they are very cheap?" he asked us with a Peter Laurie accent, whilst showing us some strange dried plant. We looked at him totally startled so he invited us for tea in his shop.
Majid and Aladdin owned a shop selling colourful scarves and fabrics. It was clear from the outset that they were gay and anyway five minutes into tea they let us in on the fact that they were not really brothers. It is difficult to describe them, they were very queeny and very funny. It was as if they had been stuck on a desert island with a copy of "Le Cage Aux Folles", all of "Blackadder" and a couple of back issues of "Viz" (when it used to be a lot funnier than it is now (!)). All of this was performed in very good English, both of them having spent time in Australia, with a curious Arabic twist.
We found out bits about their life in Syria but not really that much. Aladdin told us the curious story of how he got married and had two kids. Apparently he fell in love with a man who he was sure was gay and so married his sister in order to be near him. Having arranged all this he confronted his now brother-in-law who revealed that he was gay but did not want to have a relationship with Aladdin out of loyalty for his sister. Anyway we heard a lot of such stories over the course of the evening, after they shut up the shop we went to Majid's apartment and had dinner with them. As I said it was difficult to build up too much of an opinion of how homosexuality was treated in Syria partly because they were always half joking but mainly because they did not care. They had seemingly turned their back on most of Arab society and just maintained a double life where their families were concerned.
Sunday, 27 June 1999
Again we slept in for a large part of the morning and only emerged to go to the bank and change some travellers cheques. This was a bureaucratic nightmare unsurpassed even by the Chinese and on a par with the Vietnamese postal system. We walked into branch #1 of the National Bank of Syria (which is the only bank) and found it in chaos. in the centre of the bank the clerks and tellers sat around in an area of paper covered desks encircled by one long counter. On the other side of this defensive wall an army of frustrated customers besieged the clerks angrily waving fistfuls of forms. We eventually got the ear of a clerk and were told that the guy who dealt with foreign exchange was on holiday and that we should go to branch #2 which was just next door. We thought ourselves lucky to get out of the chaos and when we entered the calm, orderly, almost western branch #2 we felt confident that we were getting a better deal. We went up to the desk and the first thing we were asked was "what did they tell you at branch #1?" we told them and they shook their heads and said "this is not right, go back to branch #1". I was pretty taken aback, their appeared to be some sort of inter branch warfare going on. Not wanting to get caught up in it I decide to get cross and demanded that they sort it out. Eventually they caved in and phoned the manger of branch #1 to tell them to get their arses into gear. I asked them what was the manager's name and they shook their heads, "Mr Mohammed" they suggested as a possibility.
Back at branch #1 we went straight for the manager's office. We could not speak to him however because he appeared to be entertaining family. His assistant directed us back to the besieged counter area. The same clerk came over to us "What did they tell you at branch #2?" playing the game we told him but dropped in the phone call to the manager. After much talking finally someone was found who could deal with the transaction. She came over to us and looked at the cheques. "These need to be checked, please go to the deputy manager". I sort of half flipped out and started to demand that he come to us but we gave in and wormed our way through a labyrinth of filing cabinets and stacks of paper which I presumed was designed to protect the deputy manager's desk. He looked at my cheques and said "receipt". Now this is totally out of order, by rights you are not even meant to have both the receipt and the travellers cheques on your person at the same time. However I had been forewarned that this would happen by my guidebook and so had he receipt. He glanced at it and concluded "this is not the correct receipt". I looked at the numbers on my receipt and on the travellers cheque, resisted the urge to grab the back of his head and slam it into the desk so he could have a better look, and explained to him that they matched. He then pointed to an additional four number code at the"/> of the travellers' cheque number. "What is this" he demanded "I don't know I am not the one who works in a bank" I replied, completely exhausted. Eventually he had no choice but to grudgingly except that they were valid.
Back at the desk things went a lot more smoothly, four forms had to be filled out by the clerk, passports had to be inspected etc. Whilst we were waiting I got speaking to a very large and very angry man. He was angry because he had transferred all his money from a Saudi bank (we guessed he was a Gulf worker) to here and now they were refusing to let him withdraw any. We told him about our problems and he was amazed "all this for $250, I bet you will not be coming back to Syria". Fortunately we were given the go ahead to proceed to the cashiers desk to pick up our money a few minutes later because I had a suspicion that our friend was on the verge of climbing on the counter and belly flopping onto the clerks.
Fortunately experience had taught us to leave at least an hour free when dealing with banks in other countries and we did not miss our appointment with John and Fadi. They met us in the hotel lobby and told us they were taking us to have ice cream. We walked across town to a restaurant they knew. I had been a bit apprehensive about the meeting as they had seemed a little shocked when we asked them out for lunch the day before but we talked on the way and they seemed to be a lot more comfortable. By the time we got to the restaurant we were chatting away like old friends. They insisted on ordering up a couple of nargileh's and went through the whole procedure with us. It was a pleasant enough experience. The sucking of the smoke through pipes and through the water cooled it down and cleaned it up a bit so that it was nowhere near as harsh as cigarette smoke. It also had some apple peel added to it so it even tasted nice however after a few drags it became a bit sickening and I I took very few puffs on it after that.
Over the course of four hours, spent in the restaurant and in the university, we found out a lot about student life in Syria. In return we told them a bit about English universities and the west in general. They also, I think, were quite glad of the opportunity to practice their English as I will explain later. They both studied Food Sciences and were both in their early twenties but their was one important difference Fadi was a Muslim but John was Assyrian Orthodox and therefore Christian. Not that it was a big issue, it seemed from their friendship that, amongst the educated at the very least, such things were not an issue. Interestingly John was proud to be Assyrian but when I questioned him about the dwindling numbers of Christians is Syria and his own plans to go to emigrate to America he was slightly evasive and a little upset. It was a shame since the existence of communities of Christians in a mainly Islamic society was something that had drawn me to Syria in particular. That these communities are in a gradual decline is something I think that the world at large should be worried about. When they go you will no longer be able to point at the Levant and say "this is where Islam and Christianity sprang from and still the two religions live peacefully side by side". Syria sometimes seems poised on the brink of change and if a more fundamental government were to get into power I think things would become very sticky for John and others like him.
The University of Aleppo needed a lick of paint and a bit more funding as far as we could see. Of course we had no idea about the academic standards but John and Fadi's course was five years which for food sciences seemed like a long time. One thing that was especially interesting was their motivation. John, as I said, wanted to study in the States and Fadi's eventually aim was to work in the Gulf. One thing that was essential to their future careers was being able to speak English fluently and they would have to pass TOEFL if they wanted to study abroad. I am not sure whether it is true but I read somewhere that a significant part of Syria's GDP came from the money Gulf workers send back home. If so then the fact that university education is paid for by the state makes more sense. Although a large percentage of those graduating will leave the country the money flows back.
The other interesting conversations we had were the half finished ones. John it appeared was getting married when he finished his studies. "To a Christian girl?" we half joked. "Yes of course. My father would kill me otherwise". Our final conversation was Anna asking about elections which brought fits of laughter but no real response. From what we read people were afraid of talking about politics on the streets as little as five years ago and it appeared that big brother's shadow still lurked over the country. Most students in the west would leap upon the chance to talk about politics with relish. However I do not blame them, only seventeen years ago Syria's government carried out a brutal massacre in Hama and such things are not forgotten easily.
We eventually said goodbye to them after making arrangements to meet up with them in Cairo where they would be going on a field trip in a few weeks time. We then went back to the hotel and rested. Later on in the evening we went to see our friend Hratch in the Jdeide Quarter. He took us in to see a baptism being conducted in the Armenian Orthodox church. It was very interesting but we felt like we were intruding a bit.
Monday, 28 June 1999
The time for talking was over, it was finally the moment to rent a car. It was expensive but considering the volume of ruins around Aleppo in the hinterland of Antioch (modern day Antakya) it seemed worth it. It took quite a long time to sort out but once we were on the open road we knew we had done the right thing.
To the west of Aleppo the road steadily rises and enters a world of rock. The ground is covered with boulders of all shapes and sizes and it is difficult to imagine how anyone manages to live in such an unpromising environment. We were on the look out for a site called Mushabbak and we drove completely past it and it was not until we stopped and looked back that we saw the shell of the basilica on the skyline. We turned around and drove up the hill to it parking in a clearing next to it. Next to the basilica some people had made use of the ground cleared around the basilica to build a small house and grow a few crops. I assumed that back in the past these fields would have been used by the priests and monks of the basilica to grow their crops. We walked into the basilica and found that the church was amazingly well preserved, in fact all that was missing was a roof. Predictably we were not allowed to enjoy the solitude of the place, within minutes a crowd of small boys had gathered and we were asked for money, pens etc. I took a few photographs and we walked around the basilica and then we left. It was only as we were driving off that I figured out why there was a huge pit around the back of the church. This perfectly square hole had been the quarry from which the stone for the church was taken.
We got back in the car and drove to St Simeon just a few kilometres up the road and indeed the place which people visiting the basilica at Mushabbak would have been heading. To explain briefly St Simeon was an ascetic who so wanted to escape from his followers that he took to living out his life on a pillar 18m high. This earned him the name of St Simeon Stylite and he sparked off a craze which lasted the rest of the fifth century and most of the sixth. Anyway after his death a huge church was built around his pillar which at the time was the biggest church in the world. Today quite a lot of the four basilicas of the church remain. The pillar was not so lucky having been chipped away for souvenirs over the centuries there is now little left but an egg shaped boulder.
The entrance to the church is impressive without a doubt and as you walk through it you begin to make out more and more detail. One of the symbols you see all over the place is the Byzantine cross but on top of this you have intricately carved acacia leaves capitals, ornate door lintels etc. In addition from the completely ruined east narthex you get a panoramic view over an immense swathe of countryside which makes you realise that the church must have dominated the landscape for miles around. We walked around, sat in the shade for a while, visited the baptistery and generally tried to get our full S£300 worth.
Next, another ten kilometres up the road, was Ain Dara. This was some sort of Hittite temple reconstructed by a team of Japanese archaeologists. We found the place easy enough but as soon as someone popped around the corner with a book of tickets we were off. Whatever it was on top of the hill it looked like it was entirely made of concrete and not worth another S£300. At this point we thought about heading back and going to a cluster of ruins around Harim but instead we opted for a place called Cyrrhus right in the far northern corner of Syria overlooking the border with Turkey.
The drive there was by far and away the best part of the trip. The road wound through the hills and valleys cutting a path through what was definitely the olive growing capital of Syria. Literally every bit of available land was planted with a matrix of olive trees and the ground in between kept weed free. In places where the soil was white the patterns created by the trees were highly visible and from a distance the whole thing looked like a sort of computer generated map of a hill. After a lot of asking around we eventually found what we were looking for, a small village sited in the ruins of Cyrrhus which was known as Nabi Uri. The first thing we headed for was the amphitheatre. Although partly reconstructed by the French the place was still a hell of a mess with massive blocks of finely carved masonry littering the floor of the theatre and the hillside all around. We climbed up through the tiers of seating and found a shady spot for lunch. The view was great and we were completely on our own. After lunch we climbed the hill behind us to the remains of the citadel, basically little more than a wall and attempted to see the Turkish mountains but it was too cloudy.
At the bottom of the hill, at the entry to the village was a quite unusual looking hexagonal roman tower tomb. It is this tomb which gives the modem village its name as the lower half has become a shrine to the Muslim prophet Uri who is sometimes linked to the biblical Uriah. While we were there a bus load of people were paying there respects and their Kurdish bus driver took us under his wing and showed us around. Not that there was too much to see but the upper level of the tower had quite a good view even if it was a bit windy. Downstairs the visitors were scraping small stones against one of the wall of the shrine, an activity which over the years had created hundreds of little niches in the wall. We left at the same time as everyone else did. It was funny but I could not help getting the impression that they were merely paying their respects on their way past rather than on a special pilgrimage to that particular shrine. They may have been on a tour if it were not for the fact that they were not well dressed enough - we will never know....
The journey back was again very scenic but we found ourselves back in Aleppo relatively early but too late to make it to another site. So we dumped the rather dirty looking car in the car park of the Cham Palace Hotel (where we had rented it from) and went for dinner. Over dinner we discussed leaving Aleppo for the next couple of days and going for a huge drive around the country instead of another couple of day trips. We realised it would be pretty easy to loop down the coast to the Crusader fort at Crac de Chevaliers and back in two days, taking in a lot of sites that we would not be able to get to without our own transport. We had considered this plan before but having to leave the car so early in the day really made our minds up for us.
Tuesday, 29 June 1999
Crac des Chevaliers, Hims, Syria
We were out of the hotel and on the road by seven. We were en route for the port/resort of Latakia although we had no plans to go to the beach. We were driving for hours and it took us a while but eventually we got into the mountains. Here the scenery was wonderful, very green and very reminiscent of Crete. We turned off the main road twenty kilometres before Latakia and headed up into the hills to attempt to find the crusader fort known as Qalaat Salah Ed-Din . We eventually found a village that was supposed to be in the vicinity of the fort and asked for directions. We started to follow them and it all seemed a bit unpromising until suddenly the road dropped from under us and we found ourselves at the lip of a forked canyon the ridge of which was occupied by the castle. Sadly the sun was in the wrong place and the widest angle of my camera lens too narrow to get a picture of the castle as seen when you first set eyes on it. Lets just say that everything was very green and with the sandstone walls of the castle almost white in the sunlight the whole scene reminded me of an English castle. But its position on a ridge between two river valleys gave the impression that it was almost hidden and had a 200m deep moat dug around it.
The castle's greatest surprise was yet to come. We wound down the hill and over the river and started to climb up the castles ridge. Suddenly the road swings around seemingly into the rock face but actually you enter a massive ditch cut through the solid rock which effectively isolates the castle from one"/> of the ridge. The ditch was somewhere around 30m deep, 10m wide and about 100m long. In the middle of it was left a huge stone needle on which the drawbridge was originally balanced. The castle was closed, for some reason all castles close on a Tuesday, but we did not really want to get in as what was left standing within the walls looked a bit of a mess. We simply walked around for a bit then left.
The Mediterranean coast of Syria did not overwhelm us with an urge to dive in. We bypasses the resorts of Lattakia and the only beach we did see, at Baniyas, was hemmed in by two large oil refineries complete with plumes of flame. Just past Banyias we took a road up into the hills and pretty soon we were under the shadow of Crusader castle number two, Qalaat al-Marqab . Although originally a Muslim fortification it passed into Crusader hands and at the"/> of the twelfth century the Knights Hospitallers built it up into one of their main strongholds. It sits on top of a hill which commands great views of both the Mediterranean and the valley behind it and is only approachable from the South. We parked the car well before the entrance and climbed up the hill to the base of one of the southern towers and sat down in the shade of a tree, facing the Mediterranean to have lunch. Again we did not want to explore the inside of the castle so there's not much to say about it. One of the interesting features we did observe was a white marble band running near to the top of the tower nearest to us and along the wall. From what I have read this was Mameluke touch added during the reconstruction of the south wall, which had been mined during the siege which lead to the castle's eventual fall in 1285.
After Qalaat Marqab we should have returned to Baniyas to find the start of the Banyias to Hama road. Sadly we decided to take what looked like a shortcut on the rough map in our guide book. We will never know quite where we went or how we eventually managed to get back on track but it was quite a nice place to get lost. We read somewhere that this was an Alawite area and it was somewhere in these mountains that Assad was born. Anyway after a lot longer than we expected we finally popped out of the mountains just above Masyaf an castle number three.
We had decided to take a break from Crusader castles for a while, Masyaf is the most well preserved of all the castles of the Assassins, a Middle Eastern sect whose hashish fuelled antics gave them their name and us the term assassin. While not as well built as the crusader castles it was certainly interesting. As we came through the gate we noticed chunks of Roman masonry embedded in the walls along with other assorted junk from the centuries. Fortunately we found the caretaker in and even more fortunately it only cost S£150 to get in. Once inside we found ourselves exploring a maze of passages and stairs. Eventually we got out onto the roof and found that the castle enjoyed a very commanding view of the valley below.
It was only a quick stop, pretty soon we were back in the car again and heading for the fourth and final castle of the day, the unsurpassable Crac des Chevaliers . Part of a chain intended to defend the supply route from Arwad island near Tartous to Homs the Crac without doubt looks like a tough nut to crack. In fact it never totally fell to the famous Sultan Saladin, although the outer wall was breached the inner wall was a total non-starter and in the"/> Saladin had to trick the castle's defenders with a forged note in order to capture the castle. I must look into the full story when I get back because it all sounds fantastically lame, I guess that in reality the defenders were so bored of being so far from home trapped in a castle that Saladin could have sent a signed poster of Leonardo diCaprio to them and they would have believed it was an order from their superiors to surrender.
For the hundredth time that day we got completely lost in the back roads and had to keep stopping to ask for directions. Fortunately we popped out in exactly the right place. The castle sits smack on top of a hill so is visible for miles around so we drove up to it to see what was going on. It was fortunate that we did not really need to go in that night, we had always planned to stay in the area, as like all castles it was closed on Tuesdays. We saw some people inside but we were told that they were making a film. We had a look at the sole accommodation option nearby but it was as rough as hell so we decided to drive to one of the more upmarket places which enjoyed a view of the castle from the valley below. It was expensive, in fact it was the only time we paid over £8 for a hotel but it was great and we had a verandah that gave us a great view.
Sunset being a prime time for photographs after a quick shower we drove back up to the Crac and parked by the southwest corner of the castle. Just nearby was an aqueduct bridging a small ditch that had been dug to separate the castle from the hill it sits on. The aqueduct supplies a huge reservoir between the two walls, we joked with the idea of crawling across and entering the castle by this route but, as we found out the next day, we probably would have"/>ed up covered in slime. I took quite a few photos of the castle including one from an aqueduct balancer's eye view and then we sat and waited for the sunset. The walls of the Crac were made for the golden glow of the late afternoon. They are a near perfect cream colour and their smooth lines are only broken by the weeds that grow in the cracks between the stones. It was the perfect place to watch the sun slowly set and it was eight before we even began to think about leaving.
The final amusing episode of the day was attempting to have dinner at our hotel, which looked to have the only open restaurant around - probably because we were the only tourists. The waiter spoke no English which was not usually a problem but he had great difficulty explaining to us how much lamb shish kebabs actually cost. It took nearly an hour to get some beers and a quick call on his mobile to the English speaking hotel owner to explain to us that everything was priced by the kilo. By the time we had got to the bill the hotel owner had come back which was damn fortunate as the bill did not come close to adding up. It turned out that we had been charged S£50 for the bottle of water that always gets delivered to your table when you eat out in Syria. I fact it transpired that this was why none of our restaurant bills ever seemed to be correct. This time we protested, the water had been delivered after we had eaten, probably because the waiter forgot and when his boss arrived he got a reminder, so we had not drunk any. More than this it had been delivered unsealed and from the looks of the bottle this was because it had been filled from the tap. Slightly embarrassed the hotel owner deducted it from the bill. More probing revealed that we had been paying for the small bowl of pistachios that also turned up automatically. From that night onwards we made a point to say "no pistachio" after every order of beer....
Wednesday, 30 June 1999
After breakfast on our balcony we slowly ambled back in the car. We first went to a monastery up the road but finding no monks and the whole place full of teenagers we did not spend much time there. So we headed back up the road to the Crac for the third time, this time hopefully to get in. We were in luck and pretty soon we were strolling through the cavernous ramped entry hall and into the outer courtyard. As soon as you get into the courtyard it becomes obvious why Saladin could not breach the inner defences. The inner walls rather than being straight are huge ramps some 25m thick at the base, very hard to undermine but steep enough to be almost impossible to climb, especially with people pouring oil down on you. It was not for nothing that Saladin christened these walls "the mountain". To make matters worse the reservoir acts as a moat between the walls so you would have a bit of a wet start. We skirted the edge of the moat and entered what is thought to have been the stables before finding some stairs and climbing onto the top of the outer walls.
From our wall top vantage point we could see that whatever was being filmed yesterday was still being filmed and workmen were running all over the place in the inner fort. On top of this someone was cleaning "the mountain" of weeds from the semi-safety of a window cleaner's platform. We completed most of a circuit and then went back down to ground level to and find the entrance to the inner walls. The scene inside was pretty amazing. A team of workmen were converting select areas of the castle into backdrops presumably for some sort of historical soap opera. Although we had not seen much of it TV is big business in Syria and serials avidly followed. I wondered whether it would be about the Arab's conquering of the forces of the west!
One of the rooms being converted was a very stylish gothic banqueting hall. The convertors did not really have to do much to make it look dramatic, just add a flat floor and a couple of fake pillars. We then circled round through the kitchens, into a small chapel which had served as a mosque for a while, and then up the stairs to the upper courtyard. Here we climbed the towers and tried to see the far away white keep of Safita, the next castle in the chain stretching to the coast. Then, having climbed all the way to the top we worked our way back down again and left to try and get to Hama before lunchtime.
Maybe Hama deserved an overnight stay. It was a very pleasant place and the parks lining the banks of the Orontes made for a cool place to have lunch. The only slight flaw was the river itself. Through damming and agriculture by the time it reached Hama it was little more than a slow trickle and it was full of rubbish and did not smell too hot (it was a lot better off than the Barada in Damascus however!). At least there was enough power in it to turn the wooden waterwheels, or Norias, for which Hama is famous. The wheels were in some cases twenty metres high and they carried water up to aqueducts at this height, the water irrigating the gardens of Hama. What was very interesting was that we had seen exactly the same in operation in the Dong villages of China. Was it possible that the technology travelled along the ubiquitous Silk road which at one point in time came through this region by way of Palmyra.
The Noria in the centre of the town did not prove photogenic enough so we decided to head upstream to a construction known as the Four Norias. When we got there it was a bit of a disgrace. It was hemmed in by restaurants and the only way you could get a look at them was by having a drink in one of them. This we did but it was hardly worth it, by the time you got to a table by the river you were virtually three feet away from the wheels, and the green sludge covered mill pond, and it would have taken all sorts of contortions to take a photo which included all of the wheels and none of our fellow diners.
From Hama our next stop was a Byzantine city on the road back to Aleppo. We plotted a bit of an indirect route which would take us past Apamea another Palmyra-like Roman town which according to our guide book was free if you wanted a quick wander up the Cardo Maximus - which suited us down to the ground. The road took us into the Ghab depression, a feature that looks like it once was a lake but now is semi-marsh and the setting for some of the most intensive agriculture in Syria. After a bit of thrashing around and having to give a lift to some locals in return for being put on the correct road we found ourselves looking up at the remains of yet another crusader fortification which towers above the site. Fortunately the road cut straight through the site and we were basically able to park pretty much on the Cardo Maximus. We then got out and started to stretch our legs. Although we had seen more than enough of such towns Apamea had a certain atmosphere. It was so undeveloped that you got the impression that you had just discovered it. We started to get interested when a bike suddenly pulled up bearing someone waving tickets. Like a shot we were off, we were not paying another S£300 each for a five minute walk and that was all we really had time for.
The road north skirted the eastern edge of the Ghab. Once again the scenery was breathtaking. On one side of the road the billiard table flat green fields of the Ghab stretching off to the coastal mountains in the west. On the other barren dusty slopes housing nothing more than the occasional farming community. We drove for kilometres and just at the point that we really started to worry about being lost we found a sign that said we were on the right road. A little while later we were following a winding route up into the mountains towards the village of Al-kafr. The village turned out to be a mine field for drivers with building materials dumped in the high street, kids lurching out into the road at the least notice and the cars in front suddenly stopping short so the drivers could chat to their mates. It took a while but finally we turned off onto a very well paved road leading through the fields to Serjilla.
We had always aimed to get there just before sunset and we could not have timed it more perfectly. We parked the car and got out to find ourselves on a rocky plain bathed in golden light next to one of the Dead Cities which, ignoring the absence of roofs, looked like it could have been deserted five minutes before we arrived. Serjilla was nothing more than a small provincial town in its heyday and it is that fact that makes the ruins so human and very eerie. We walked through a small area scattered with stone sarcophagi, still retaining their lids and some marked with the Byzantine cross. Beyond these we found ourselves at the village pub, supposed to be one of the best preserved Roman buildings anywhere. This was easy to believe, the dry semi-desert conditions have preserved it so well that stone cut nearly eighteen hundred years ago still has sharp clean edges. We wandered around and soaked in the atmosphere. One of the things that became clear was that its state of preservation was largely due to the fact that the entire area, not just the town, was dead. If the ruins had been in a major centre of agriculture or near a big town it would have been disassembled and recycled long ago. As it was no more than a few shepherd families occupied a couple of the houses on the periphery and from what I could see they had not needed to do much converting to get a roof over their heads.
I think we spent almost an hour walking around the streets, drinking in the atmosphere, almost able to see the former occupants as they carried out their daily lives. Finally just before darkness set in we got back in the car and headed back to Aleppo. The journey back was frightening to say the least. Some European countries have a law that you have to keep your headlights on at all times of the day. Syria seems to have swung in the opposite way and it was only when it was finally pitch black that the other drivers bothered to use them. Even then we still encountered an inter city bus driving around at nine with no lights except some green fluorescent tubes mounted under the coach.
When we finally deposited an incredibly dirty car on the forecourt of the Cham palace I was glad that we had rented a car from such an expensive hotel. They are so impersonal that no one would ever risk being rude to you for fear you were a guest. If we had rented from a local establishment, quite apart from being uninsured, we would have faced an argument or at the very least a few remarks. I think Anna was very glad to stop driving. She told me that it had been worse than driving in Athens and that is saying something. One particular problem was that some of the men were not too keen on being overtaken by a woman so that once we had they would push their crates to the limit, overtake us, then slow down, forcing us to overtake them. This dangerous leapfrogging took place on a couple of occasions and both drivers got a well deserved finger. We had a lot of fun however and we would easily do the same again.
Thursday, 1 July 1999
Heaven only knows why but we decided to stay another day in Aleppo after returning the car. I think it was out of guilt that we had not seen any of the sites of the town but we really should have left. We slept in pretty late then read through the guidebook. The museum did not seem to be all that interesting and the thing that might have got our attention, the mosaic room did not appear to be open. The other option was the Citadel so we headed off through the back streets in that direction. When we finally got there we sat down in a cafe to have a rest and a drink. The problem was that the outside of the citadel was pretty impressive but there did not appear to be any buildings inside the encircling walls. We would be paying the usual amount just to see a few re furnished rooms of he gatehouse. We decided to pass on it. We briefly considered a Turkish bath but since it was women in the day and men in the evenings it would have meant a lot of waiting around. In the"/> we just browsed the tourist souk bought some postcards and then returned to the hotel.
So as not to make a total mockery of the day we decided to go for a twilight walk in the central park. Apparently this is the thing to do of an evening in Aleppo and sure enough everyone was there dolled up to the nines. The park was pleasant enough and had a whole string of huge, lit up fountains. We watched everyone showing off, flirting etc. and then headed off for dinner. On the way out we passed a young couple sitting on a bench eating ice cream. However she was dressed in a full black outfit, the sort that looks not unlike that worn by Darth vader, and with only a one centimetre wide eye slit special tactics had to be employed. The ice cream was inserted up inside the veil and eaten in seclusion. It was quite amusing to watch but quite sad in a way. Here was a young man and his wife out for a walk in the park in the cool of the evening but she is completely wrapped up. Surely it would not make any difference if she dressed down a bit and so be able to enjoy it more? Syria is a pretty modern place and you see as many girls in t-shirts as you do in DV costumes. You wonder which way it will go in future towards a more western style of dress or towards total coverage. One hopes for the sake of the women that it will be the former rater than the later.
Friday, 2 July 1999
We finally left for Damascus. It was only a four hour trip and we arrived just after lunch on what was a very quiet Friday. We went back to the same hotel we had stayed in before so it was not long before we were sitting around wondering what to do. In the"/> we plumped for the Museum as we knew it had at least a couple of cool things in it. We ignored the museum attendant's advice and headed straight for the Classical and Byzantine rooms. Here there was quite an array of mosaics, statuary, sarcophagi and small items from Palmyra and other sites. But what was most impressive was a room full of fabric taken from the wrappings of corpses in the Palmyra tower tombs. These fabrics and their dyes came from literally all over Asia and what really thrilled us was to find some silk that had travelled all the way from China. It may seem a bit strange but we had spent months travelling the Silk Road and to see this silk in a Roman environment made this part of history really come alive and seem like yesterday.
The real crowd puller at Damascus Museum is however the Dura Europos Synagogue. Dura Europos was a very important trading town which got absorbed into the Roman empire in the 2nd Century AD. It came under siege by the Sasanians in 256 AD and in order to defend themselves the townspeople piled sand and rubble against the walls filling most of the buildings next to the walls in the process. Although the Sasanians eventually broke through and destroyed the town this defensive measure unintentionally protected murals in a synagogue and a church from the elements. The murals were discovered by the British Army by accident in 1920 and in the thirties the synagogue was chopped up and moved to this museum. The paintings of scenes from the Old Testament are without doubt amazing. They are very vividly coloured and have an almost child like simplicity. The altar rather than being carved is also painted. As the guidebook says perhaps more amazing is the knowledge that although this building is one of the best exhibits in the museum since the last of Syria's Jews were thrown out of Syria in the early 90's no Jew has been allowed to set eyes on it.
The rest of the museum was pretty hard going. No labels in English combined with a very uninspired lay out meant that we lost interest pretty quickly. We retreated to the cool cafe in the shade of the trees in the museum courtyard. When the museum finally closed we set off towards the old town in search of beer. As we were passing the Greek Orthodox church we heard a lot of shouting. Investigating we found that a wedding was in full swing but a wedding with a rather Arabic twist. For the guests, which seemed like the entire population of the Christian quarter of the old town. Was gathered around in a circle chanting and clapping. We found out from a member of the audience that this was the Syrian custom, to shout about the wedding beforehand to make sure that the entire city knew that the couple were getting married. It looked like they were never going to stop and they kept chanting the same two words (the names?) over and over again.
I will not dwell on what happened at the restaurant we had picked in the old town too much that night but we"/>ed up eating back in Martyr's Square. The waiter had offered us a copy of the menu, which was written on the wall, but after a rather obvious discussion with his boss the menu turned out to be "being reprinted" and when we asked the prices they were four times the prices listed on the wall. We"/>ed up just having a beer then walking out. I find it pretty disgusting that some people think they can take supposedly "wealthy" tourists for a ride so transparently but at the"/> of the day who cares?
Saturday, 3 July 1999
We had two remaining "must sees" on our list, Bosra and the Monasteries to the north of Damascus. Today was the turn of Bosra . We caught a direct bus and it took just under two hours. When I look back on our travels in China I remember that hardly a bus journey went by without some incident. Sadly everything is very sedate and orderly in Syria, numbered seats are the norm and there are no chickens in the aisles. The scenery on the way was flat and deserty and when we pulled into Bosra we had to look twice because we could not believe we were there. We got off and strolled towards the Cardo Maximus.
The problem with Bosra, we pretty quickly concluded, was that in the" latitude="nineteenth century the Ottomans decided to use Bosra as a refugee camp for Druze fleeing Lebanon. This meant that whatever was left of Bosra was ripped up and recycled or converted into houses. It is a real jumble and what is worse the place is full of litter and Druze children trying to sell you postcards. You got a real feeling that the Druze that still inhabit the ruins are pretty pissed off that they have not moved to newer houses and this generates a bit of a nasty atmosphere. We stumbled through the ruins and found a few buildings of interest but most of it had been scrambled, practically all that was left of the colonnade were the pillar bases and their capitals. Of course some might accuse us of ignoring the religious importance of Bosra. It was where Mohammed first learned of Christianity and as well as containing some important cathedrals it also hosts some very early examples of mosques. Well this was true but everything was locked up. We tried to stare through keyholes but all we saw was the dark.
So it did not take us too long to get to the theatre, the most complete building in Bosra and the highlight of any trip. It survived mainly because it was fortified by the Ayyubids to defend against the Crusaders in the thirteenth century. The outside of the theatre was strengthened and the inside filled up so that a collection of buildings could be constructed within the defences. When the theatre was restored all of this filling was removed and of course the bottom half of the theatre was found to be in excellent condition.
We walked in and were ready to pay our S£300 but were informed by the attendant that it was S£400. At this we got rather upset since it just did not add up, all sites in Syria cost exactly the same and the price is controlled by the government. Moreover on the board outside where the prices had been painted over and rewritten the local's price was still at its normal level of S£30. We told him that we thought this was out of line and more or less accused him of doctoring the prices and threatened to report him. He tried to give us some flannel about this price being including the Roman streets but seeing as how you did not have to pay a similar charge in Palmyra and there the site was not covered in rubbish we refused to believe him. However we were not coming all the way to Bosra and missing the highlight of the show so we were sort of resigned to paying the full whack when the attendant caved in. We could go in for S£300. This was a remarkable change of tune and frankly an admission of guilt so while I paid him I decided to give him some more shit and told him that we would gladly pay extra if only they would tidy the place up. He pretty much ignored me but when it came to giving me my change he said "now you give me fifty Baksheesh". This caught me a little off guard but we were tired of arguing and it seemed better that only fifty get siphoned into his pocket rather than two hundred. As if to prove the whole thing the tickets we got had three hundred written on them!
Still whatever the story was with the entry fee the theatre itself was amazing. For starters it was huge with a capacity of nine thousand. On top of this it was in very good shape. We strolled around then sat down in the shade and wrote our diaries for an hour. Strangely enough as we walked out through the vaulted passages underneath the seating we met three cleaners. They were sweeping the dust but with nowhere for it to go it just flew up in the air and settled on passing tourists or back on the floor again. I thought it very ironic because if those same three guys had been put to work on the rest of the site the whole place might not have been such a bomb site.
We left Bosra much earlier than we had planned. By the time we got back to Damascus it was about three and with nothing else to do we thought "when in Rome..." and decided to have an afternoon sleep. This worked out quite well because in this way we missed the hottest part of the day and when it was finally time to go out to dinner we felt relaxed rather than hot and bored. We headed out to a new part of town, the shopping district and were pretty amazed by what we found. It was a very cosmopolitan area full of young people hanging out and doing pretty much everything that they were allowed to do, which basically meant sitting on car bonnets staring frustatedly at passing women or eating ice cream. As well as being a bit more relaxed the other thing that the district had going for it was several English language bookshops and a newspaper shop where I managed to get hold of a copy of "The Telegraph". The news was that whilst we were being roasted alive, back home Wimbledon was being rained off and everyone was getting overexcited about Henman. It was nice to see that nothing had changed!!
Sunday, 4 July 1999
We woke up early and walked half way across Damascus to find a bus to Maaloula. We were not the only ones enjoying the cool of the early morning, half of Damascus was up and doing their shopping. When we eventually got to the appropriate minibus station we found a bus and it left pretty much straight away. From the looks of the bus we were not the only people going to visit the Convent and Shrine of St Thecla that Sunday. The route took us pretty much back up the motorway half way to Homs so there was little that we had not seen before. At the last moment we turned off into the desert and started driving towards a range of low mountains topped by dramatic cliffs (or bluffs or whatever you call them). Nestled in a "cove" in these cliffs was the small village of Maaloula.
One thing that is a bit unusual about Maaloula is that it is one of the few surviving communities that speaks Aramaic, the language which Jesus would have spoken. We did not expect to hear it in use but it was an interesting thought. Anyway the bus drove us right up to the doors of the convent and we went in. In reality there was not that much to see. In the chapel a Greek Orthodox liturgy was being chanted in Arabic and up in the rocks above the convent buildings a small cave housed the shrine of St Thecla. However what was interesting was the amount of people paying their respects.
Behind the convent we walked up a narrow canyon, formed apparently as the result of a miracle, which took us up onto the cliffs above town. Here there was a superb view of the town and surrounding plains and we sat down and had lunch. On the way back we walked to the edge of the cliffs above the convent. The view was good but more impressive was the sound of the chants echoing from the rocks all around.
Back down in the village we were a bit stuck. We wanted to get to the Convent of Our Lady in Seidnaya. It was only twenty kilometres down the road but everyone we met told us that we basically had to go back into Damascus and then out again but this would be a two hour round trip. More or less resigned to this I flagged down a bus. "Damascus?" I asked, "No, Seidnaya" was the reply and the bus pulled off. I ran after it and started shouting "Yes, Seidnaya!!" at it and eventually it stopped. When we got the source of our amazing good fortune became clear. The bus was full to bursting with the young female population of Maaloula on a picnic to Seidnaya. The sight of two westerners, and I think me in particular, started them giggling and it took about them ten minutes before they plucked up the nerve to talk to us. They told us all about the picnic and predictably asked us if we were married. They asked us quite a few more questions the most surprising of which was "Are there any Muslims in England?". In return we asked them to teach us a few words in Aramaic, I can not remember "I love you" but "hello" was something like "Ektob". While we talked to a couple of them the rest sang, played the bongos and swigged on a bottle of arak. It was all in all quite a bizarre little bus trip.
You could be mistaken for thinking that the Convent of Our Lady in Seidnaya was yet another Crusader castle. Perched on quite a big outcrop at the foot of some low hills it dominates the surrounding town, the only clue being the domes and crosses that top it. The bus took us up a zigzagging road to the entrance and from here we climbed a staircase to emerge in a cool, tree covered courtyard. From here we went to the main chapel which was in total chaos. Inside a baptism was being conducted which was noisy in itself but outside several more families were waiting to get their squealing pink offspring dunked and the crush of bodies was too much to cope with. We quickly diverted up some stairs and found ourselves on the roof with a massive view and little company. The thing that our friends in the bus had come to see however was downstairs and it was this way that we headed next. Here a small chapel housed a small icon of the Virgin Mary supposedly painted from life by St Luke. The icon has been the"/>point of countless pilgrimages and is a favourite with expectant mothers. The amazing thing is that it is not only Christian women who come here to pray for children. Many Muslim women also make the trip and despite the fact that we were here on Sunday rather than Friday we did manage to spot one.
Again it took little time to go around the convent. The depressing thing is that the buildings of this convent, St Thecla and even the monastery we visited just by Crac des Chevaliers seemed to have been built just this century. I could not work out whether it was because they had previously been destroyed or they had rebuilt them with donations but it certainly meant that they were not very interesting as buildings.
Outside the convent we wondered what to do next. We decided it would be a good idea to go for a walk and we set off towards a small cave we could see on the hill opposite the convent. When we got there it turned out that this cave was in fact some sort of shrine but sadly it was locked so we climbed up the rocks to on side of it and carried on. After a while we found a good place for a photograph of the convent which turned out to be so peaceful that we stayed there for an hour or so. It must have bee quite a picture us sitting on a dry rocky hillside in the middle of nowhere with me reading last Wednesday's Telegraph but fortunately there was no one around to see us.
There is not too much to add about our last few hours in Syria. We again had an afternoon sleep and that night we ventured into the embassy district of Damascus for something to eat. Over a beer in a cafe afterwards we were sitting near a quite well off man with a small entourage. We could not work out if they were his wives or his daughters but on the table around him were four women dressed completely in black. On a satellite table nearby were seated an assortment of his children. They came for coffee and ice cream and after they had finished sat in near total silence looking too formal for words. It was at this point that I wondered whether the future for Syria lay in this strict adherence to Islam or would it have more to do with the young people sitting around on car bonnets just around the corner. I was not at all sure but one thing that is clear is that Syria seems perfectly happy with its peculiar blend of Islam and Christianity - Western culture and Arabic culture and I hope that it will stay that way.